The Volkswagen Up, and the end of the cheap new car: Motoramic Drives
"Do you earn too much to afford one?" It's the question that headlined one of the classic late 1960's Volkwagen Beetle ads, laying out the inexpensive car as lifestyle choice, and the Beetle as unfit for people "who are afraid nobody will know they have any money, if it doesn't show in their car." Four decades on, I spent a few days in the true spiritual successor to the VW Beetle of the '60s, a car so inexpensive VW can't even afford to sell it in the United States. Here's why the penny-powered ways of the Volkswagen Up just weren't made for these times.
Named the World Car of the Year a few months back, the Up represents Volkswagen's effort to command the global demand for city cars with some semblance of style. At 11.6 feet, the Up is longer than a Scion iQ but shorter by a few inches than a Fiat 500. VW plans to sell the Up around the world -- but it was designed before $4-a-gallon gas ever became a nightly news story, and VW contends it would cost too much to modify the Up for U.S.-specific crash and emissions rules.
From the outside, the Up follows the trend of putting some style into low-cost vehicles, with a face and square profile that's unique, although bland enough that strangers weren't stopped by the bright-red tester. That square back also contains the Up's space-maximized rear seat and storage area, one that's generous enough to rival the hauling capacity from the next-larger class of subcompact cars.
The up! provides a study in spartan accommodations, and a view into what German engineers consider essential for driving in the 21st century. Every surface at hand is some kind of hard plastic, with a strip of body-colored metal on the doors exposed like the beams in a downtown loft. It has a rear backup radar system, but no vanity mirrors. The total number of cupholders is one, half as many as that ultimate driver's car, the Porsche 911. VW integrated a stalk-mounted navigation and trip computer into the dashboard, but had no budget to let the driver control the passenger's power window or even provide an armrest. And who needs a USB port if the stereo has a simple auxiliary plug-in, Mr. Moneybags?
Speed isn't a virtue, but the Up's handing delivers all of the goodness that a slow car driven quickly can. The body doesn't roll much, the steering has that firm Euro-weighted feel missing in some newer models, and the Up's stumpy wheelbase doesn't punish the driver with a report of every road imperfection.